Working-Class Masculinity, Middle-Class Morality, and Labor Politics in the Chilean Copper Mines

By Klubock, Thomas Miller | Journal of Social History, Winter 1996 | Go to article overview
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Working-Class Masculinity, Middle-Class Morality, and Labor Politics in the Chilean Copper Mines


Klubock, Thomas Miller, Journal of Social History


Miners around the world are renowned for both their militancy and their intense masculinity. Studies of miners tend to celebrate and embrace miners' manliness as central to their combative labor politics and to accept their particular formulations of manhood as natural. As Beatrix Campbell has noted for the case of England, "miners are men's love object. . . . It is the nature of the work that produces a tendency among men to see it as essential and elemental."(1) In Chile, copper miners have been taken to be the embodiment of the revolutionary traditions of the Chilean working class; images of the strong and burly miner with his helmet and drill have stood as symbols of both the Chilean working class and working-class manhood.(2) Copper miners themselves define their identity in terms of their powerful sense of masculinity. The history of miners thus reflects the masculinization of Chile's industrial labor force and working-class political culture.

How and why miners developed their distinctive sense of manhood has yet to be explored. Similarly, few historians have looked at the ways in which miners' experience of class and politics has shaped and, in turn, been informed by constructions of sexuality.(3) Labor historians have tended to attribute miners' combativeness to the essential nature of their work, ignoring the ways in which the labor process has been inscribed by ideologies of gender. In general, "gendered" Latin American labor histories have focused on the experiences of women workers, reproducing the assumption that men are "ungendered" historical subjects. This study locates the construction of working-class masculinity in the Chilean copper mines in the tensions and antagonisms produced by the transformation of a population of itinerant laborers into a semi-skilled industrial working class. Miners' masculinized class identity emerged as industrial employers and the state sought to build a reliable and productive work force of married men who headed nuclear families. The process of proletarianization in the copper mining enclave involved the redefinition of miners' work according to the new tenets of company social welfare and paternalism and the gender ideology of domesticity.

Working-class masculinity thus became a field upon which managerial strategies of labor control and workers' practices of contestation and accommodation were played out. Copper miners elaborated a complex and contradictory sense of masculinity that both contributed to the copper company's and the state's reorganization of gender relations and provided the basis for workers' resistance to the authority of the North American mine owners. However, as they undermined company authority and sought to overcome alienation at work by asserting an aggressive masculinity, miners also came into conflict with the strict moral codes that formed an important part of the ideology of the left and organized labor. Workers who flaunted company control with a boastful manhood expressed in activities like fighting with bosses, stealing, moonshining, drinking, and gambling also frequently violated the strict discipline and moral codes insisted upon by organized labor and the left. Similarly, those workers who embodied the model of manhood based on the responsible and respectable head of household and who adhered to the company's paternalist recipes for social and cultural improvement often made militant union activists. Miners' constructions of masculinity, forged in the process of proletarianization, both reinforced and destabilized the mining company's and the state's efforts to reorganize working-class gender relations and discipline the emergent industrial labor force.

Company Paternalism, the State, and the Reorganization of Gender Relations in the El Teniente Copper Mine

During the 1920s, North American copper producers in Chile confronted a crisis. While world demand for copper was expanding at an unprecedented rate and new techniques and technologies for mining low-grade ore were being successfully applied in both open pit and underground mines, mining companies were unable to rely on a stable and productive labor force.

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